The bad apple spoils the bunch.
It’s a general rule that applies to a whole bunch of situations, from religion to politics to civil rights.
This last week, Buzzfeed stepped up to fill the role of the bad apple for the media.
Here’s the gist of what happened: On Jan. 10, CNN ran a story about a two-page summary of allegations against President-elect Donald Trump being given to him and President Barack Obama during an intelligence briefing on Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
The summary was of a 35-page intelligence dossier that, among other things, alleged Trump’s campaign team was actively exchanging information with Russia in an attempt to harm Secretary Clinton’s candidacy for the presidency.
While CNN reported on the summary and the generalization of the allegations made in it, it did not report on the specifics of the dossier, nor publish the documents.
But shortly after CNN’s report, Buzzfeed released the entire 35-page dossier so that “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”
The allegations made against Trump and his campaign team in the dossier are damning, in every sense of the word.
The dossier alleges Russia has been feeding Trump’s campaign team about Clinton for several years; the campaign team used Russia as a “media bogeyman to mask more extensive corrupt business ties to China”; several Trump advisors met secretly with Russian officials; Russia has (sexual) blackmail on Trump; and more.
But here’s the problem, which has been stated, restated, and I will state it again because this point must be made clear – nothing in this 35-page dossier has been reported as confirmed by U.S. intelligence, the U.S .bureaucracy or U.S. media.
And that’s not for lack of trying, because according to the New York Times, the dossier “became one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets,” since the documents have been in the hands of government officials, intelligence operatives and journalists since at least early fall – before the election – and even as early as July 2016.
So we’ve got the whole of Washington sitting on this political A-bomb, trying to figure out if it’s armed and dangerous before making a move…
And Buzzfeed decided to press that big red button.
From a legal standpoint, I’m imagining Buzzfeed’s lawyers are starting to sweat bullets.
Buzzfeed’s Editor in Chief Ben Smith has said, “We have always erred on the side of publishing…. Publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”
Frankly, what Smith said directly confronts almost everything I believe about journalism and my No. 1 rule in reporting: Verify and confirm.
Yes, Buzzfeed verified that the dossier was included in intelligence briefings, but — just like everyone else who had the documents — couldn’t verify or confirm the validity of the allegations in the dossier.
Which means Buzzfeed published, at best, hearsay and rumors.
And at worst, Buzzfeed’s report could be considered libel and defamatory by a thin-skinned, hot-tempered and vindictive man who is about to take the highest office in the country.
Trump is all about making fame and saving face, and I would not put it past him to file a suit over this.
Now, winning a defamation case in this country is difficult. The Supreme Court ruled in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) that the state cannot “award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves ‘actual malice’ — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
I’m no constitutional lawyer, but I can see how it could be argued that Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the dossier without being able to verify it’s contents was done with actual malice, which in turn would mean Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the dossier wouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment.
And, heck, the more I think about it, maybe Buzzfeed shouldn’t be protected by the Constitution here.
Because from a journalistic standpoint, what Buzzfeed did may have helped American journalism as an institution inch closer to its demise.
Everything we do as journalists is built on public trust. Without the public trusting that we can give them accurate information and truthful insight, we may as well fold up our papers, take down our news stations, and tell the last person leaving our democracy to please turn out the lights.
And I can’t shake the feeling that Buzzfeed betrayed that trust in more ways than one.
I thought Rolling Stone’s false “Rape on Campus” article was bad enough for public trust (and, by the way, the magazine lost that defamation suit) but Buzzfeed just gave Trump, his administration and his more zealous supporters a huge excuse to ignore (or worse, attack) media that points out any fault of the president-elect’s.
And as soon as Trump takes office, there are going to be many faults to point out, including refusing to divest himself from his business empire; refusing releasing his tax returns; potentially violating anti-nepotism laws (laws against public officials appointing or hiring relatives) by hiring his son-in-law as an advisor; picking “one of the nation’s most prominent skeptics of childhood vaccines” to lead the Vaccine Safety Panel; and many, many more.
Each of those headline stories – which appeared last week — should have received much more attention by both journalists and the public, but we were all distracted by these unverified rumors.
And while I highly doubt Trump would have liked the dossier to appear in the public sphere, it certainly seems that he’s been able turn this new negative attention around to make it work for him.
So thanks for that, Buzzfeed. And good luck in the new year — it looks like we’re all going to need it.